BAGHDAD — In the latest warning from Washington that America's patience is wearing thin, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Iraqi government officials Friday that they need to pass legislation aimed at easing sectarian tension before this summer, when the U.S. military will conduct a formal evaluation of its troop increase in Iraq.
Gates stopped short of announcing a deadline, but he used some of his most forthright language to date to make clear to the Iraqi government that American soldiers would not remain on Baghdad streets indefinitely. "Our commitment to Iraq is long term, but it is not a commitment to have our young men and women patrolling Iraq's streets open-endedly," Gates said.
Meeting with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, the Defense secretary said that he did not want the Iraqi parliament to take its summer recess, scheduled for July and August, unless it first acted on a series of reconciliation laws, such as measures to share the country's oil wealth and allow provincial elections.
The Bush administration is hoping that political and economic agreements among the Shiite Muslim-led government, its Kurdish allies and the minority Sunni Arab population will help to tamp down sectarian violence on Baghdad's streets and beyond.
Over time, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and even President Bush, have warned of growing impatience with the status quo.
"I constantly signal to the Iraqi leaders that our patience, or the patience of the American people, is running out," Khalilzad said at a news conference before departing Iraq in late March.
Nevertheless, Iraqi politicians have made little progress on key benchmarks for progress such as the oil issue and initiatives to allow Sunnis who had worked in Saddam Hussein's government to return to government jobs.
And despite the pressure from Gates, there is broad skepticism among many mid-level American military officers in Iraq that the two sides are ready to compromise. One such officer said it would be difficult to establish real security in Baghdad until the Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions tired of fighting each other and had a realistic sense of their demographic and military power.
"I don't know whether these guys are ready to quit," the officer said. "I don't know the answer, but I know that it is the critical question."
Gates said Friday that he and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, would evaluate the effectiveness of the Bush administration's troop buildup strategy in Baghdad this summer before deciding whether it should continue.
In a joint news conference with Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim Mifarji after his meetings, Gates said that no other timelines besides the summer evaluation were discussed with Iraqi officials.
Gates said he told Maliki and others that the evaluation "would be enhanced by the reconciliation legislation."
"There was no other discussion of timelines," he added.
Key issue for Congress
The issue of timetables and benchmarks has been at the forefront of debate in Washington. Democrats want to set a deadline for troop withdrawal to begin. Bush has said repeatedly that he will not sign any legislation that sets a pullout date.
Although Gates has not contradicted the president, he heavily emphasized during his two days in Iraq that the Iraqis elected to run the country after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion must move quickly to quell the violence. "We will see where the situation is at the end of the summer where Gen. Petraeus and I have repeatedly said we will be making at least a preliminary evaluation where things stand with the Baghdad security plan, the surge and reconciliation," Gates said.
Some military officers have said that even if the Pentagon has not issued an explicit timeline, they believe there is an unspoken one, considering Gates' call for the summer evaluation of the troop increase and next winter's U.S. presidential primaries.
"We have an implied timeline," the mid-level officer in Baghdad said Friday. "Our presidential election is driving this, and I think the Iraqis understand that."
The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue of timelines has become heavily politicized.
Though the Bush administration has portrayed the military as dead set against imposing a timeline for progress in Iraq, the views of many officers are more complicated.
Some say that an explicit timeline could serve to prod the Iraqi government to make compromises to placate Sunni Arabs. Others worry that a timeline works only with a government that is broadly accepted by the population.
"The Iraqi government is legitimate, but they are not accepted," said the military officer in Baghdad. "And by pushing a timeline we may just expose the flaws of this government quicker."
Defending the debate